It has only been a few months since a verdict was reached in a landmark case for Internet safety. Kevin Bollaert was the first person ever to be prosecuted, arrested, and sent to prison (for 18 years) for publishing "revenge porn."
Bollaert was really imprisoned for extortion. If he hadn't made the victims pay hundreds of dollars to have their pictures taken down, he might not have been prosecuted at all. The United States has no clear federal law on revenge porn — publishing or sharing photos an ex has sent you, in order to humiliate them. And fewer than half of US states have passed laws dealing with the issue.
In America, passing such laws isn't straightforward. First, many claim that First Amendment rights to free speech allow them to post whatever they want, including pictures sent to them by their exes, without anyone's permission. Second, many still blame the victim, arguing that if the pictures, however private, hadn't been taken in the first place, they wouldn't have been posted. Even though 70 percent of young adults send this type of content to one another, expecting it to be treated as private, the public at large treats this behavior as taboo and shameful.
The laws are still struggling to catch up with technology. In the meantime, companies are scrambling to protect their users. Facebook monitors harassing behavior, whether it's revenge porn or not. Microsoft is starting a new practice that will delete all links to harassing content, and prevent the poster from linking to it again. Meanwhile, Google is allowing victims to report websites, and then removing the sites from searches. Reddit is jumping on board, with new policies that prohibit "involuntary pornography." Twitter now locks users out of their accounts, and hides reported content, in accordance with its new terms and conditions to protect users.
Google's new terms were met with a huge backlash concerning censorship. Many users argued that this was an infringement on their right to express themselves, and Google risked losing many users. For now, the company has decided to keep its old terms, but crack down on making sure everyone follows them.
The Internet is slowly getting safer. But until laws change that allow people to have sites like that of Kevin Bollaert taken down, and the posters arrested, people must still be careful. Microsoft and Google remind users that they cannot delete the content, only make it harder to share and harder to find.
Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain explains other changes coming to the Internet, which are not necessarily for the better. We should act to make sure current norms such as web surfing remain unfettered as the Internet evolves, he says. If not, we'll be allowing Internet powerbrokers to control how and through which means we access online information.
Image credit: Philipp Nemenz / Getty Images